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[Sean O’Malley] Moon’s NK policy should link aid to human rights

It did not take long for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to outline his approach for peace on the Korean Peninsula. There is no doubt the future road to peace will be complex with many unforeseen twists and turns, which makes it prudent to recognize that President Moon’s initial offerings are rich with irony and heavy with inconvenient truths.

The irony of course is that President Moon is a former human rights lawyer, regarded by many here to have been put in power by candlelight protesters wielding the people’s power of a mature democracy. To aid his populist vision, he chose a human rights expert as his foreign minister. Yet, President Moon and his administration have been virtually silent on the heinous human rights violations endemic under the dictatorial North Korean regime.

In his Berlin address prior to the G-20 summit, President Moon remarked that universal values of human respect should be implemented across the Korean Peninsula and that South Korea will have a clear voice with the international community concerning the human rights situation in North Korea. This somewhat empty and ambiguous rhetorical flourish lost the tremendously weak punch it had when President Moon suggested in later G-20 summit remarks that humanitarian aid should not be linked to political circumstances. It seems that President Moon is trying to separate the cause and outcomes of the North’s brutal quashing of human rights.

This decoupling of human rights from the political agenda is a troubling trend emerging with the Moon administration. The administration has made nary a mention of prisoners held in North Korea’s gulag of political prison camps, which the UN estimates could be as high as 120,000 people, many of whom are second or third generation family members born in the camps. Nor has it mentioned the long history of summary executions committed by North Korean leaders. It also had nothing to say regarding the unfortunate death of Chinese human rights activist and Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, presumably for fear of upsetting Beijing.

Earlier in July, the new Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon laid down the practical elements of the administration’s approach to the North. Reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, establishing family reunions, providing humanitarian aid and other initiatives are the policy directions. This new direction ignores some highly uncomfortable and inconvenient truths.

The first is that greater economic opening to the regional or global economy does not necessarily lead to more liberal political reforms. This was the hope with China joining the World Trade Organization. Yet, after 16 years, China is expanding censorship and control of the media, cracking down on human rights and democracy advocates and limiting foreign non-governmental activity. The reopening of Kaesong is predicated on the flimsy rationale that revenue from Kaesong has not been directly linked to the expansion of the nuclear and missile programs of the North and that a Kaesong opening will lead to more liberal political reform in the North. Both rationales are dubious and dangerous.

The second inconvenient truth is that North Korea has plenty of money to feed its people. It chooses not to feed them, so it can pay for a nuclear and missile program, as well as pay for the lavish lifestyles of its leader Kim Jong-un and other elites. This inconvenient truth was noted in 2014 in the United Nations’ “Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Providing humanitarian aid does not change this wanton disregard of human suffering by the North Korean regime. In fact, it may simply help prolong the comfort and life of that regime.

The third inconvenient truth is the matter of North Korea’s perspective on negotiations with the South. Jang Jin-sung, a former psychological warfare officer of North Korea, has written that North Korea considers talks with South Korea to be “aid farming.” The goal for the North is to extract as much money as possible without making any substantive changes to the Kim regime or its programs, including the nuclear and missile programs.

In Berlin, President Moon stated clearly that he believes the most urgent humanitarian issue facing Korea is the reunification of families separated by the Korean War. This issue he claimed must precede political considerations. Although these separations are tragic, I respectfully submit that the most urgent human rights issues with the North are those composed of the physical brutality and death so shockingly described in the UN Report of the commission of inquiry.

The visit to the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul, by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, is irony itself. He is visiting an office established after the commission of inquiry to speak with an administration that would seemingly prefer to ignore the worst descriptions and accusations in that commission’s report. As Mr. Quintana stated, “... efforts to promote dialogue must address human rights concerns. It is part of my mandate to remind governments of this important principle.”

President Moon has heralded a new, people-centered politics in the South. It is time he heralds a people-centered politics for all Koreans. Rather than decoupling humanitarian aid and political progress in North Korea, the linking of these issues should be a central pillar of any North Korean policy. If President Moon continues to ignore the most heinous human rights violations by the North Korean regime while offering aid under the guise of humanitarian auspices, he may find future generations critique him as being on the wrong side of history, when those Korean people most brutalized in the North needed him most.

By Sean O’Malley 

Sean O’Malley is director and associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan. He can be reached at -- Ed.